Mystery of the ‘long-necked reptile’ solved

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Detailed 3D reconstructions of Tanystropheusskulls show that these bizarre reptiles lived in the water rather than on land, researchers explain.

Some 242 million years ago, during the Middle Triassic, a mysterious reptile with an absurd long neck lived on our earth. Paleontologists have been breaking their heads for years Tanystropheus longobardicus; there was a lot of confusion about the nature of the animal. For example, it was always assumed that the (smaller) juveniles mainly lived on land, while the (larger) adults probably preferred to roam in the water. But is this really the case?

Using the latest X-ray photography techniques, scientists at the University of Zurich reconstructed the skull of Tanystropheus longobardicus, so that all the puzzle pieces fell into place. Not only did they solve the mystery surrounding the beast’s lifestyle, they also saw that the reptile has evolved into two different species.

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Nostrils

Already in 1852 Tanystropheus described for the first time. Yet only now has it been possible to resolve this issue. For this, the team made X-ray scans of crumbles Tanystropheus-skulls, which they then digitally puzzled together. The result is a 3D visualization that reveals the skull shape in detail.

The nostrils of the animal are located on top of the muzzle, as we also see with a crocodile, and suggest that it loved to swim around in the water. In addition, the beast had long, sharp teeth that fit well with a piscivorous (read: fish-eating) diet. The researchers do suspect that the animal occasionally crawled in the direction, for example to lay eggs.

“Because Tanystropheusfossils are always found in ‘wet’ environments, it could already be inferred that they must have been at least close to water, ”says paleontologist Dennis Voeten of Uppsala University. The X-ray visualisations thus confirm what were only conjectures until recently.

3D reconstruction of Tanystropheus hydroidesskull © Stephan Spiekman et al.

Living together peacefully

Surprisingly, the analysis showed that the little reptiles were not youngsters at all. A large number of growth rings along the outer edge of the bones in their limbs revealed that the ‘little one tany’s’, like the larger variants, were adults. These structures arise when the growth of the bones decreases sharply and the animal is fully grown. This means that we are dealing with two different types. The large specimen has therefore been christened Tanystropheus hydroides, while the smaller ones are original species name Tanystropheus longobardicus retains.

In addition, the difference in body sizes and the shape of the teeth suggests that the two species did not hunt the same prey. The animals have likely turned to different meals over time, allowing them to coexist peacefully in one area. “This is a good example of niche differentiation, where ‘family members’ living side by side specialize in different food sources and therefore do not compete with each other over time,” explains Voeten.

The new findings are helping paleontologists evolve Tanystropheus easier to understand. Voeten: “Researchers show that even fossils that have already been studied can still tell a new story with modern techniques.”

Tanystropheus longobardicus
The small Tanystropheus longobardicus and his bigger ‘cousin‘Tanystropheus hydroides relative to humans © Stephan Spiekman et al.

Sources: Current Biology, Field Museum Public Relations via EurekAlert !, University of Zurich via EurekAlert !, Dennis Voeten

Image: Emma Finley-Jacob

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